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By Sean Thornton

Municipal releases of new data sets are often marked with optimism and excitement.  By making previously hard-to-access information available, they herald new opportunities for public transparency and innovation.  Yet as city data programs mature, their relationship with the public – and ability to impact laws and lives – evolves as well. 

During the early morning hours of Sept. 8, 2014, a massive fire broke out on the second floor of an apartment building in the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.  Originating from an open flame, possibly a candle or cigarette, the second-floor fire quickly spread to the third floor, trapping two adults and four children in an upstairs unit.   

16-year-old Carliysia Clark, 13-year-old Carlyon Clark, 12-year-old Shamarion Coleman and 7-year-old Eri-ana Patton Smith were all killed during the blaze.  Mother Shamaya Coleman and her boyfriend Nate Johnson survived, but sustained serious injuries while jumping from their third-story window and calling for help. 

The building Coleman’s apartment was in had no working smoke detectors on the second floor apartment where the fire originated, or on the third floor apartment where the four children died.  Less than two months prior, Chicago Department of Buildings (DOB) inspectors had marked 17 violations that were cited and processed for local Circuit Court.  In the past decade, the same building was also cited at least nine other times for various building code violations. 

In a direct response to the tragedy, Chicago’s latest major dataset release is a list and map of “problem landlords,” or residential building owners across the city that have racked up numerous citations for failing to provide tenants with basic services and protections.  The hope is to prevent similar tragedies from happening by drawing public attention to these landlords, and limiting their ability to conduct or expand business until such property issues are addressed.    

“The list is all about preventative maintenance,” DOB Commissioner Felicia Davis told the Chicago Tribune. “We know there are conditions that if they go unabated at these properties, we’re likely to have a tragedy.” 

When compared to other dataset releases, Chicago’s problem landlord list strikes a more somber, vigilant tone. It also demonstrates a new way that open data can help the public better hold bad actors accountable.

A New Accountability Tool

Chicago’s Data Portal is the tool at the center of a recent ordinance passed by Chicago’s City Council.  On January 21, 2015, the Council approved the Eri’ana Patton Smith and Coleman/Clark Kids Tenant Protection Ordinance.  In addition to drawing public attention to negligent building owners, the ordinance administers new penalties and limitations against owners on the list until they take action.   

Inclusion on the list means owners have been cited multiple times for not providing adequate heat, hot water, and working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, in addition to other basic services and protections.  Penalties include being ineligible for city land acquisition, zoning changes, business licenses, and any building permits that don’t involve addressing their current violations.  The Ordinance also states that buildings in the worst of cases may be taken to court for forfeiture, with such owners potentially losing their properties to third parties.

45 buildings, owned by a mix of 59 individuals and corporate entities, currently make up the list, which will be updated twice a year on Chicago’s Data Portal

By issuing a highly visible problem landlords list, Chicago is also making building code violations not only more accessible, but more notable in the public’s collective conscious. The added pressure that may arise as a result from residents, community organizations and neighborhood groups is a force that cannot be underestimated.  In a few short weeks, the problem landlord list has already become one of Chicago’s most viewed datasets, racking up close to 150,000 views.   

Negligent owners on the problem landlords list are not the only property offenders in Chicago, either, nor are their violations the most severe; the City has a building scofflaw list on the Portal and in the spotlight as well.  Scofflaws, as opposed to bad landlords, are in active Circuit Court cases and own at least three properties that have been cited for more serious violations.  With 80 buildings currently listed, the city’s scofflaw list nearly doubles the new problem landlord list.

While resources for problem landlords exist in other cities, Chicago’s method of presenting it as open, downloadable and exportable data is unique, as is Chicago’s public call for attention to the list.  Many cities have nonprofit landlord watchdog groups that seek to hold negligible owners accountable.  New York’s Office of Public Advocate also provides its own problem landlord information via a “landlord watch list” application.

Chicago appears to be at the beginning of a ramped-up effort to confront problem landlords, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel has dubbed the data release and ordinance as a “first step.”  It’s a first step that the City hopes will not only benefit renters throughout Chicago, but prevent tragedies like the Roseland apartment building fire from happening again. 

About the Author

Sean Thornton

Sean Thornton is a Program Advisor for the Ash Center's Civic Analytics Network and writer for Data-Smart City Solutions.  Based in Chicago, Sean holds joint Masters’ degrees from the University of Chicago, in Public Policy and Social Service Administration. His work has spanned the city's public, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors. 

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